My estranged mom died, emotional and logistical questions
May 15, 2024 5:02 AM   Subscribe

How can I find out more about my mother’s death? She died recently and there isn’t any googleable information (eg, an obituary). I am aware that a will was filed by my sibling, with whom I have no contact. Can I find out more about her death and will? Have you experienced the death of an estranged close family member and are able to share your emotional experience?

My sibling (from whom I am also estranged) contacted my partner last year after nearly ten years of no contact. Straightforward internet searching showed my sibling had had a few felony arrests in the previous year. I figured that was the reason for contact, but wondered at the time if it was due to my mother’s health, but decided not to make contact. Recently, I googled my sibling again to see if there were updates on the arrests or court filings and, in addition to the criminal charges, saw that they filed my mother’s will just a few weeks ago. I do not want to make contact with my sibling and there are no other living family members who could provide information.

I’ve always wondered how I would feel when I found out my mother died. I imagined I would feel relief and maybe feel nothing. And that turns out to be accurate, so far She had a long history of addiction and unmanaged mental health issues, and was an abuser of me as well as a facilitator of abuse by my sibling and father. I don’t feel anything now, not a twinge of sadness (I guess you can say she has been dead to me for a very long time?), but perhaps I am just in denial? When I realized what had happened, I woke my partner up to tell them and lay awake for hours but haven’t felt sadness, maybe a bit at her dying alone but otherwise it’s like finding out any other random person died? (I should add I’m actually a pretty emotional and empathetic person). Have you experienced this, and would you care to share your experience of processing it?

My more logistical and practical questions are regarding her death and will. I’m curious to know how she died—is that as simple as obtaining a copy of her death certificate? Is the will filed in the same county as the person died, or are death records available by state? She was quite old for someone with such poor health so I’m not concerned about genetic issues but perhaps more for closure for myself. Somewhat relatedly, is there a way to find a copy of her will? I would be curious if I were named in it; I would not expect any inheritance (even if there were a small amount I doubt I would want it give the toxicity of our relationship), but would wonder if I were named. But also I’m curious if my sibling would try to leave me out if I were named? (Am I a horrible person for wondering this?) I’m also curious to know if she preferred cremation or burial, etc, for my own closure. I no longer live in the state where her will was filed and I assume she died.

This is all very fresh so I apologize if it’s a bit disordered. I’m grateful for any other advice or shared experiences. I do have friends whose parents have died but they’ve all had much more standard relationships so I feel a bit alone right now. Thanks in advance.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
My first thought is that it will be much, much kinder towards yourself - both your current self and your future self - if you understand what you're going through as "trying to process your feelings about your mother and her death," rather than taking your thoughts at face value as "you need to find out details about your mother's death and her will".

The estrangement happened for a reason. You closed the final door on having any relationship with her for a reason. Trust your past self, and know that you made the right decision. Don't question yourself and try to re-open this door now, especially not at one of the most emotional points in your life.

Because that is what's at the heart of your experience right now: you're in a frantic sort of emotional turmoil to understand what the death of your mother means to you, to understand why you don't have the feelings other people think you're supposed to have, and to figure out how to mourn the death of someone you have closed the door on. Honor THIS. Help yourself find ways to address THIS. Seek out therapy, do some art, commune with nature, go look at the ocean for a few hours, write poetry, join a support group for estranged adult children whose parents have died. Make yourself a soft and comforting space for THIS, the heart of your experience of your mother's death.

Once you have met your underlying need to process your feelings, you will quite likely find it's easy to leave the door to the past closed. You don't really need to know how your mother died - just like, for all these years, you never needed to know how she was living. And you can find your comfort and solace from someplace other than your mother, just like you have been doing all these years.

As regards to the will, if you have any money or assets coming, the executor of the estate will contact you. You don't have to do anything. If they don't contact you then you must assume you were not left anything in the will. Again, leave this alone. You don't want to go begging for money from someone you were estranged from, and worse, you don't want to be *seen* begging for money only to be turned away and told that you were cut out of the will. Maintain your peace, maintain your distance, maintain your dignity. The executor is legally required to contact you if there is anything you are supposed to inherit. Trust in that, and let this go.

I'm sorry for your enduring, long extended loss. Wishing you peace and comfort.
posted by MiraK at 5:15 AM on May 15 [26 favorites]

Anon, I am sorry for what you're going through. I haven't been through it yet, but I will. I too am permanently estranged from my abusive mother, who is fading away in memory care. Despite how abusive she is, I was the one to make the memory care decision and execute it.

Money from this abusive person is a yoke, and you are not wearing it. So are any words contained in the will--you would never be able to unsee anything she wrote about you. My mother, for example, explicitly wrote me out of her will and I will never unsee all the language about that in the will and in her notes to her attorneys. I second MiraK's advice about the will. If you are intended to receive anything (which may be extremely unlikely due to your estrangement?), you will be contacted.

Each state has their own rules about who may obtain death certificates. In Virginia, for example, they are available to immediate family members. Google your state for its rules. It's very likely you'd fill out a form and send it to the office of vital records, or whatever it's called where you are.

You are not alone. I wish you peace.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:33 AM on May 15 [6 favorites]

Anon, you may also be interested in this recent Metafilter thread.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 5:34 AM on May 15

My father, who had disowned me ten years earlier, died in March of 2023. While he left three of my children money, I was written out of the will. My brother, whom I had not spoken to in ten years either, called me when he was in the hospital and near death, and one of my children was able to visit him (his grief has been much more complex than mine, as he had many happy memories of time spent with my dad, which I did not). I was angry at being cut out of the will. Although my dad had never been happy with me in my entire life, the proximate cause of the disownment was my five-year-old socially transitioning.

My mom had died ten years earlier; we were not estranged (my dad disowned me a few weeks after she died), but our relationship was always difficult. I found that I did not grieve my mom much; she had not been in my life much and was never a supportive presence. It did, however, take about ten years for all the complicated painful feelings I'd had about her my whole life to settle down a bit. It waxed and waned but it was hard carrying that for so long, and it's been a relief to feel it has settled in the past eighteen months.

What I mostly felt after my father died was anger. My brother, charming as always, told me I was "a selfish bitch who never appreciated anything they'd done for me," which had the benefit of telling me what the family story about me was. I was angry in part because my mother would not have wanted this. If my dad had died first, I feel confident I'd have gotten, if not half of the the estate, at least something. I did write one email to my brother talking about this, thinking perhaps his conscience would lead him to send me a little something. I knew it was futile, but I also felt good to have taken my one shot.

It's hard, because while I separated from the family dynamic, my brother embedded himself in it, building his house on the same piece of land where my parents lived. The reward for him is that, unless something unexpected and catastrophic happened in the last ten years of my dad's life, he's quite wealthy now. I made a different choice, and it was a good choice, but it did hurt that at the end of it all, there was nothing at all for me. Because my dad disowned me so quickly after my mom died, I lost all access to anything I might have wanted as a memento, and to all family photographs. I loved and admired my mom despite everything, and would have liked something small to have with me. And I grieve the photographs.
posted by Well I never at 5:43 AM on May 15 [12 favorites]

Money from this abusive person is a yoke, and you are not wearing it.

This is very nicely put.
posted by Well I never at 5:44 AM on May 15 [10 favorites]

There's no one right or wrong way to experience this and no standard about how you should feel or when.

You may feel little to nothing about this for the rest of life. You may be overcome with grief at strange times, say when something occurs that reminds you of a past interaction. Mentioning this only to say to be kind to yourself and feel free to ignore any societal expectation of how you should act or feel.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:52 AM on May 15 [6 favorites]

I'm sorry for your loss, even if the loss only hits you to the extent that you have to spend this time figuring out how much of a loss it actually is, and what it means for you.

My family member who died was someone who had disowned/disclaimed any relationship with me when I was quite young, so the way it hit me was not quite the same. But I would say that my response was mostly "confusion about how I was supposed to feel and some mild relief that any questions of 'is the status of this relationship ever going to change in some way' was once and for all closed." That didn't change much with time. As someone who has a close personal relationship with gallows humor, I found some entertainment in the process of the wrangling over whether I would get mentioned in that person's obituary. (I didn't care, but other people felt strongly on both sides of the equation, and a family member who knew I'd be amused fed me info about the debate. I was written in, ultimately, at another family member's insistence, and I assume that the deceased spun in her grave about it.) I chose to assume that if there were anything in the will that I needed to know, someone would tell me. But any bequest would not have been life changing to me so I decided not to care if by some small chance the executor acted in bad faith and yoinked a small amount of money away from me. If the potential for life-changing money had been there perhaps I would have looked into getting a copy of the will from the courthouse records or whatever.

I think it's absolutely fine that you're wondering all of the things you're wondering, and none of it makes you a bad person. I also think some of it you may eventually find you don't actually care about, once the dust that's been kicked up in your mind/heart about this settles a little. Your feelings and what you care about may shift over the next few weeks, months, or years. It's okay to take your time figuring out what you want to do/feel/research. You may also choose to deputize someone else to look into this for you and just come back with the facts. I would gladly do that for a friend, or I imagine it's the kind of thing one might be able to hire an investigator to, well, investigate.
posted by Stacey at 6:21 AM on May 15 [2 favorites]

Have you experienced this, and would you care to share your experience of processing it?

While I have experience with various flavors of grief, mostly speaking as a volunteer grief support person: everything you've described is totally normal grief, including not feeling "classic" (trope) feelings, wondering if you're broken/bad for the way you do/don't feel, assuming what you feel right now is the sum total of what you will feel over the next 2-5-10 years, wondering if you are in denial, and general concern about Doing Grief Wrong (Because Everyone Knows If You Do Grief Wrong You Will Pay Dearly For It Like It's The SATs of Bereavement).

I have a great list of recommended reading for various scenarios, but I have yet to find a really solid offering on the death of an abusive parent. In my situation, I'm often introducing people to the concept of Adverse Childhood Events, C-PTSD, and Inner Child work for the first time and you probably know about that already. So my abbreviated list for you is:

- It's OK That You're Not OK: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn't Understand
- The Grieving Brain: The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss
- How to Grieve What We've Lost: Evidence-Based Skills to Process Grief and Reconnect with What Matters (coming out 5/2024)
- The Grief Recovery Handbook, 20th Anniversary Expanded Edition: the Action Program for Moving Beyond Death, Divorce, and Other Losses Including Health, Career, and Faith
- Art Therapy Workbook for Grief & Loss: Exploring the experience of Grief through Art Therapy and Writing Exercises, for Teens and Adults

My primary advice for this stage of your journey, when your nervous system has been walloped by an abrupt shift in your universe and that is plenty to deal with: just let your feelings happen. Don't judge them, don't cling to them or push them away, just let them come when they come and go when they go. Acknowledge them, and treat them with respect even if they are hard or ugly or undesired or "wrong". Find ways to process (and I really do love that art therapy book for flipping through and picking an exercise when I just need to blarf out some kind of feeling), and ideally spread the processing around your brainparts: verbal processing, written, manual labor, philanthropy, screaming into the void, interpretive dance, cat-petting etc.

If you can kind of care for yourself by "flu rules" right now, do that - decline any work or socializing you can if you know it isn't going to fill your cup, early bedtimes, mind your intoxicant intake. Let your walloped nervous system heal.

I'm sorry for your loss. It's still a loss, regardless of the circumstances of the relationship, and your grief - however it expresses itself - is legitimate. For children of abusive parents, their death is also often the death of opportunity, that 0.00001% chance they might suddenly make amends for everything is feasible until they're gone.

On the practical side, I think this page might at least point you in the right direction for getting the legal information you're looking for.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:26 AM on May 15 [15 favorites]

Someone in the comments above mentioned that your grieving process will be unique to you, or words to that effect. I would add that there may be no grieving process at all, and there is nothing "abnormal" or "weird" about that; your relationship with your mother was no doubt nuanced and complex, and there's no wrong way for you to feel about all of this.

When my estranged mother died two years ago I felt nothing. So MUCH nothing that it freaked me out a little; I kept waiting for some sense of loss to creep in, or maybe pity at the thought of the loneliness she must have felt passing away all alone in her little house out there in Nowheresville, Oregon.

But that never happened. Instead, I just never felt anything at all about it: never ruminated on the circumstances of her death, or thought idly of the events in her life that had caused her to become such a horrible person. Just a, "Well, couldn't have happened to a better person," and that was that.

But, like I said, you'll deal with this however you feel compelled to, and that's just fine. And of course you'll be thinking about logistical issues like her will, your sibling, who's doing what or getting what or what will become of this or that. That's just your brain being practical. You're fine.
posted by Pecinpah at 8:06 AM on May 15 [5 favorites]

So much of life is finding peace in saying (to yourself and others), “I don’t really know what happened. I don’t think I ever will. That’s just how it is.”

You may be able to find answers to your named questions, or you may not. But I truly doubt the answers would resolve the underlying feelings of not understanding. I encourage you to continue practicing saying the above to yourself, and finding a feeling a peace with it.

Sending you support and hugs.
posted by samthemander at 9:45 AM on May 15 [4 favorites]

I am so sorry. I cannot add to the fine advice you already have, but I can mention something about the will. You said the will was "filed" -- the meaning of this will depend on your mother's jurisdiction. Check out the website for the court system to see what the law is there. Does it already show where the filing took place? In most US states, the proper jurisdiction is the home of the deceased person, but if she owned property elsewhere (or there was just a mistake), it may be in that place.

The will may be a matter of public record if it has been filed. If so, you can request copies without contacting your sibling. This may mean contacting a local court services person to scan them for you -- more expensive than normal copies, I'm afraid. The docket will show you whether the probate case has started yet; if it's unclear, you can ask a court clerk what it means and what the status is.

I do think it's wise if you have someone else look at it first to see if there is any language that would upset you.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:35 AM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I think you have an absolute right to find out more about your mother's will, since it seems she had one. I know someone who has decades-long deep struggles with one of her children, and has spoken to me about cutting that child out of her will. I counseled her against it - it's a very passive aggressive thing to do - she'd be dead, after all - and that child will be horribly traumatized. Sometimes people mourn what should have been rather than what actually was.

Your mother sounds, from your description, like she had many health and social problems. She may have had little estate to leave, but whatever she had she may have included you, out of love, or sorrow, or guilt at how you were treated, or a mix of all of the above. Or she may have not. Sometimes it's more painful not to know than to actually know, but only you can determine that.

If you are able to access information through the legal filing, you might be able to find out if she had an attorney prepare the will, and you could then contact the attorney for information, thus avoiding contacting your sibling. I imagine the attorney could then tell you about the circumstances of her death and if you inherit anything. And if your own contact information has changed since your last sibling contact, and your sibling doesn't have that info, informing the attorney can only be helpful. Note that it can take months to settle an estate, which is very time-consuming; in PA it normally has to occur within a year from death. Your mother's state's regs may differ.
posted by citygirl at 11:34 AM on May 15

Both of my estranged parents have died and I found out via the internet -- both died indigent but there were generic obituaries online. They had died some time before I found out, and I do not have contact with anyone in my family of origin. I was able to get their death certificates so I know how they died, but that information isn't really useful as they were both addicts so their health was compromised.

The rules on who can order a death certificate and what information has to be provided differ by issuing agency; I provided the full name, date of birth, date of death, and city of death, as well as my relationship to the deceased. I will say that getting the death certificates made it "real" for me in a way that nothing else could have, and in both cases I was floored by really complicated, really intense emotions. Sometimes I still am (about 4 years since I found out about my mother and a year since my father. I was no contact for almost a decade before that.)

I expected to feel little, or feel a lot. I didn't expect both.
posted by sm1tten at 12:45 PM on May 15 [1 favorite]

I would lower your expectations of finding out anything medically important from the death certificate if it’s likely she died of an illness. Doctors are trained to fill out the cause of death very literally (ie use the medical jargon for ‘heart stopped’ or ‘stopped breathing’) without any deeper explanation of underlying causes or whys. It’s mostly a legal document.
posted by genmonster at 3:25 PM on May 15

I went no contact with my brother decades ago. He was abusive to various family members, including our grandmother, and he spent much of his adult life in prison. After my mother died in late 2020, a close friend of mine was searching for her obituary online and found my brother's obituary from early 2020. I had similar feelings and thoughts as you. Mostly what I felt was relief while simultaneously feeling what seemed like loss. I'm aware that knowing won't logically make any difference, but I find I'm still curious about the cause of his death. I hope you're able to find the closure you desire.
posted by Scout405 at 8:03 PM on May 15

There's a poet working on a book about family and parental estrangement. She recently published this poem.
posted by mild deer at 3:12 PM on May 19

Former state-level Vital Records employee here.

Contact your state's Office of Vital Records. As long as you have some kind of proof of relationship, you should be able to obtain a copy of the death certificate. There is usually a fee (the Vital Records in my state charges something like $20). It should tell you things like when and where she passed, cause of death (expect this to be somewhat vague, but it will give you an idea of what happened), who the informant was for the funeral home, and whether she was cremated, buried, etc. If she was buried, the record should have the location of the internment.

I would contact an attorney to find out if you were included in the will or not. Bring the copy of the death record. Even if you are in a different state, the attorney can find out who to contact in the event that you were included in the will (and NO, you are NOT an awful person for wondering about that).

My sincere and heartfelt condolences to you at this time. Regardless of the difficulty of the relationship you had with her, she's still your mom and that's a big deal.
posted by chatelaine at 11:28 PM on May 20

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